Thursday 23 December 2010

The Harlequin Award

I was amazed, humbled and very proud to be the latest winner of the Harlequin Award, an award given by The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild to anyone who it feels has furthered the art of the marionette. There were some VERY worthy contenders and I felt it was unlikely when I heard a while ago that I had been nominated, but was bowled over when I received a letter a week or two ago to say I have been awarded it and get to keep it till 2013!
The Harlequin Award was created in honour of Eric Bramall founder of the Harlequin Puppet Theatre in North Wales and brilliant puppeteer, a pioneer in marionette manipulation.
I haven't been presented with the award yet but am looking forward to getting my hands on it!! And it will have pride of place at home for the next 2 years. Many thanks to those that felt I was worthy of such a prestigious award.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Happy Halloween!

(picture by Kevin Keele see more of his work here)

Monday 25 October 2010

Walter Potter's Museum of Curiosities

Walter Potter (1835 - 1918) was a Taxidermist, not a brilliant one there were far better throughout Britain, but what was different about Walter Potter was how he posed the taxidermy that he created. Instead of posing birds or animals on rocks or branches in natural scenes, or 'tableaux' as they were known, he depicted them in human scenes; playing cards, boxing, drinking and getting married.... to name a few.
Walter Potter began Taxidermy when he was 19, and it was around this time that he began to create his first and possibly most impressive tableaux 'Who Killed Cock Robin', a case that took 7 years to complete. This case along with several others have gone on display again at the 'Museum of Everything' exhibition currently running in London till Dec. (See below). The artist Peter Blake who has co-curated the exhibition, bought some of Walter Potter's creations back in 2003 when they were all auctioned after the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall decided to sell the collection. The cases ended up around the world, but several of the most important ones have been brought together for the exhibition.
Although these days taxidermy is often frowned upon, in the Victorian period it was a perfectly acceptable decoration on a wall or in a drawing room, like an Ikea picture is today! I can see why some people might be unnerved by the exhibits, certainly the more freakish ones like the two headed lamb, but I find the likes of the 'Upper Ten' a group of high class squirrels enjoying drinks and a game of cards, to be pure genius. Walter Potter managed to create not just a comical scene, but by adding so many little nuances and idiosyncrasies you actually believe these characters exist. It's like seeing a living version of Beatrix Potters illustrations  - although most were created long before her first book were published (and she wasn't related!).
In essence he gave them life, which is quite ironic considering they are stuffed! Walter Potter prided himself on the fact that none of the animals in his tableaux's were killed specifically for them, they had all either died naturally or had been killed as part of natural culling which occurred regularly at that time by farmers and the like. The red squirrels pictured above for instance were in Victorian times considered a pest and regularly shot, now fortunately they are protected, nevertheless the red squirrel population in the UK has not been depleted through ten stuffed in a Walter Potter case, you need to look at the Grey Squirrel for the real blame for that!
If you want to know more about Walter Potter, his museum and the works he created then click here

If you want to see some of these for yourself then visit the Museum of Everything before the end of Dec, details here 
The original Museum in Bramber, Sussex

Tuesday 19 October 2010

The Museum of Everything

“Like a creaky ghost train ride with lots of unexpected corners that take people by surprise!" that's how James Brett, the curator of 'The Museum of Everything', describes the latest exhibition which he co-curated with Pop Artist Peter Blake.
We have loaned some Punch & Judy Puppets and a Punch booth from our collection to the exhibition and went and set them up last Monday, two days before it opened to the public. These now stand alongside a magnificant set of Punch puppets from Peter Blakes collection, together with a vent Dummy and other puppets and empemera. 

We were fortunate to be able to have a roam around the exhibition before it opened, which is being housed in a former Victorian Dairy (behind the library) off Primrose Hill, London. I won't ruin it by describing what is there, because you really do need to visit to get the full experience 9and a few surprises!), but it is a fantastic collection of Victorian curiosites and entertainment from Circus, puppetry, fairgrounds and even the great Walter Potter taxidemery (more on that later......) The exhibition runs from now (Oct) until Dec 24th and i couldn't recommened it - you should go and see it - it's candy floss for your eyes!

For more info check out their website: The Museum of Everything

Saturday 9 October 2010

Jumbo - The Greatest Elephant in the World!

I seem to have a bit of a Circus theme going with my reading at the moment, just finished "Jumbo - The Greatest Elephant in the World" by Paul Chambers. Though not a very long book it gives a truly fascinating account of the life of an African Elephant that became a huge celebrity (literally) in both Britain and America.
In essence it's a sad story. Right from the very beginning you read of the harrowing way Jumbo (considered then a runt as he was so small) was torn from his mother in what can only be described as barbaric hunting methods by a tribe that was more used to hunting to kill, than to capture animals alive for European animal traders. We then read of his first captive home in a zoo and menagerie in Paris where he was overshadowed, and therefore neglected by keepers, due to more popular elephants in the Zoo. His lucky escape from Paris, when sold to London Zoo, meant that he didn't suffer the same fate as the other zoo animals did; during France's war against Prussia, the Prussians managed to completely enclose Paris, which left the Parisians starving and ultimately having to eat the animals that remained, including the elephants.
As his popularity grew in London Zoo so did his notoriety which managed to reach across the Atlantic to Phineas. T. Barnum the infamous circus owner and showman who was determined to own Jumbo whatever the price. His instinct proved right and after many weeks of waiting, and a lot of media manipulation by Barnum, the king of spin, Jumbo arrived in the USA to a hero's welcome with the streets of Manhattan lined with literally thousands of people. Unfortunately although Jumbo did live for many years with the circus, proving to be the most popular attraction and focus of attention the whole time, his life was brutally cut short in Ontario, Canada when he was hit by a freight train whilst loading into the Barnum train to move onto the next destination. Never missing an opportunity Barnum had a taxidermist on hand who, together with 5 assistants, managed to stuff the hide of Jumbo and eventually he continued to travel with the circus until he was finally donated to the Barnum Museum at Tufts University near Boston MA, of which Barnum was a benefactor. Jumbo stayed on display there, proving to be a lucky mascot for the football team, until the Museum sadly burnt down in 1975 and all the contents, including Jumbo, were destroyed. His bones however, which Barnum also displayed, still reside in the stores of the American Natural History museum.
Aside from the story of Jumbo, there is another equally sad story, that runs throughout the book and that is of his keeper Matthew Scott. Scott became Jumbo's keeper from the day the elephant arrived at London Zoo, ultimately moving with him to America and being with him at the time of his death. Already established in the Zoo he was regarded as someone who had a very natural way with animals and could make them behave and conform like no other keeper could. Although he had never worked with Elephants before Jumbo he was given to him to care for and he took the role very seriously. The author throughout the book seems to flip back and forth between describing Scott as a manipulative, loner who used his influence over Jumbo to carve out a greater role for himself, to that of a deeply caring individual whose commitment to the care of his animals meant that he forgo everything else in his life. I think on balance Scott was certainly the latter and that although he was no doubt a difficult and prickly character at times, he was actually treated quite badly by all he worked for throughout his life. He cared for Jumbo like a devoted servant and in turn Jumbo returned the favour by returning that affection, following his commands and indeed even saving his life at one point. There was no doubt they came as a package and it was a double tragedy when Jumbo was killed that the man laying uncontrollably sobbing at his head had not only lost his sole companion but also his career, livelihood and home all at the same time. Very little is known of Scott after Jumbo's death, he did travel for a while with the stuffed Jumbo, but after the popularity of that waned and it was donated there was little else for Scott to do, he was basically pensioned off, given some money to go back to London and told to leave, but he couldn't go and at one point he was found in the shed where the stuffed Jumbo was being kept in storage. There is no known death certificate in the UK for Scott and he doesn't appear on any census after he left with Jumbo for the USA, so it is presumed that he died in America possibly of a broken heart.
It truly is a fascinating book written in  a very approachable style and with meticulous research. As with the Grimaldi booked reviewed in an earlier post I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Circus, showmen, Victoriana or just a genuine good story!

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Spitting Image - Thatcher!

Love her or hate her Margaret Thatcher was an iconic image and one that helped Spitting Image position itself as one of the most memorable shows in television history. Whilst visiting the Rude Britannia exhibition (and writing the blog post about it) got me thinking that even though it's been twenty years since she was removed that image of her and in particular the terrifying Spitting Image caricature still remains around today, and as popular as ever judging by the visitor interest in "her" at Rude Britannia.
There is a fascinating short interview on the Tate website with Roger Law, artist and co-creator, with Peter Fluck, of Spitting Image. In the interview Law discusses the Thatcher puppet and why he feels Spitting Image couldn't really come back with the same success it had in the 80's and early 90's. Interesting.

Law in the above interview mentions the various Spitting Image Thatchers there were. As part of my collection I have several Spitting Image puppets including Thatcher, mine is the one that Roger Law describes as "more sympathetic, your dog is dead" caricature, a version that they did in the early 90's.
Although Roger Law indicates he doesn't think Spitting Image will ever come back, aside from the political reasons he indicates the budget would also likely be prohibitive in TV these days, he has been convinced to bring together some of the original team for a few one off projects. The latest project was very reminiscent of Law's early days with Fluck when they were creating editorial images for the likes of the Sunday Times. The latest image depicts the main leaders in this years election (along with the ever present Mandelson) and was commissioned by the Radio Times. 
Hopefully this will be the first of more commissions in the future, although we have had a few impersonators, there hasn't been anything with the quality and cutting satire that Spitting Image had.

Rude Britannia

Recently got the chance to see the fantastic Rude Britannia exhibition at Tate Britain. It's on till September 5th and is wonderful opportunity to see the superb selection of comic art on display from Gillray to Scarfe. There is a selection of caricatures, original artwork and comic art such as the "naughty postcards" and the work of Beryl Cook and even Spitting Image's iconic Margaret Thatcher.
Gerald Scarfe was asked to create several new caricatures for the exhibition some of which are based on Gillray's work; such as his take on the 1797 Prime Minister William Pitt who Gillray depicted as the "giant factotum"
Scarfe decided that William Pitt's legs would make a brilliant entrance to a room so he set about creating an enormous version of this famous print.
There is a video interview on the Tate site with Gerald Scarfe discussing Gillray's work and the influence he had on the caricaturists who followed. Like Gillray, Scarfe will be on of those iconic artists that will be looked back on for centuries to come - a one off.

Rude Britannia runs till Sept 5th at Tate Britain - worth a visit.
Some more images from the exhibition;

Monday 31 May 2010

Joseph Grimaldi (18 Dec 1778 – 31 May 1837)

As it is Hay Festival week I thought I'd take five minutes to write about what I'm reading at the moment; 'The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi' by Andrew McConnell Stott. What I realised, when looking for the date of Grimaldi's death for this post, is that by pure coincidence today, May 31st, is the 173rd Anniversary of his death. Grimaldi is buried in London and his grave can still be seen in Grimaldi Park, Islington.
I'm not going to do a full review of Stott's book here, there are plenty online if you wish, but I will agree with all those that I have read and say that the style in which it has been written is far more than a biography, it is more like a 'journey' through the theatrical scene of London at the turn of the 19th Century. Stott has the enviable ability to write in such a way that you get all the facts and dates required for a biography, but at the same time he is able to paint a picture of the theatre scene that makes you wish you were there to actually see it, while at the same time thanking god that you weren't! He describes in detail the characters of the day visually depicting them, warts and all (in many cases literally!) and in doing so creates his own performance where you begin rooting for 'Joey' and wanting to 'boo and hiss' the less than trustworthy managers and owners of the most popular theatres of the day; Sadlers, Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Every so often Stott digresses slightly to tell another tale of London life and gives us in insight and mental picture that is so vivid you could, with little imagination, imagine you were there.
Joseph Grimaldi himself is quite a pitiful character at times, despite being the saviour of many London theatres (he regularly drew huge audiences) and to that degree doing quite well for himself, he was plagued by misfortune and injuries following the demands he would put on his body each night and a string of personal tragedies - his Italian father (also a clown) severely beat him and his brother, his first wife died in childbirth (along with his first child) his second child died in suspicious circumstances at the age of 30, following this he and his second wife draw up an unsuccessful suicide pact. Stott heavily relies on this melancholy personal life as the muse for his success as a clown, he theorises that he created the 'Sad comedian', a theme that has continued with current comedians; the idea that humour is derived through the battle with their own demons.
Joseph Grimaldi reinvented the clown, he was the first to use white-face make up and wear outrageous over sized and colourful clothes He was the first in a new culture of celebrityism that, until his day, had been reserved for only the Royals and the honoured few, An example of this is that his memoirs were published and edited by "Boz", a young Charles Dickens. Grimaldi is still remembered each year with a Church service in London attended by many clowns of the day.
Stott illustrates his life vividly and gives us a true insight into everything that was happening at the time, his ability to picture and then put into words the atmosphere of London is a credit to both his imagination and style of writing and the meticulous research he has clearly undertaken.
As someone who is fascinated with circus and the theatre of the 18th and 19th century I would quite clearly recommend this book, but I would recommend it not just to those with an interest in these areas but anyone wishing to gain an insight into the culture of London and the life of some colourful characters who lived there.
RIP Joseph Grimaldi (18 Dec 1778 - 31 May 1837)

Sunday 30 May 2010

Quentin Blake at the Hay Festival 2010

There is no question that Quentin Blake is a prolific illustrator, his work can now be seen virtually everywhere not just in books but on mugs, bags, greetings cards, wrapping paper, hospital murals and now even the sides of  buses! However despite him being one of Britain's most prolific illustrators, and certainly the most recognised and respected, the quality and charm of his work remains in each and every one of his drawings. That effortless sketch like quality his illustrations have is a style that is often copied but has yet never been matched.
We have met Quentin a few times and he is the most pleasant modest person you could ever wish to meet, quintessentially British, just like his illustrations, he is without doubt a national treasure. We had the good fortune to see him again yesterday at the Hay Festival (for which he designed many of their logo's see above). 
He gave a short talk about his work in front of hundreds but the highlight of the event was that Quentin just basically sat and chatted while he drew selections of the characters he has drawn throughout the years, (shown on screen via a camera above his drawing board) at times taking requests from the audience. Below is his replicating one of the first character designs for the BFG.
His wonderful 'free' style of drawing was demonstrated quite naturally as he moved from calligraphy pen, to dip pen, to quill and finally with a brush - at one point demonstrating the ability to create smoke (that was drifting from a hot pan of George's marvellous medicine) by scribbling with a watercolour pencil and then dipping his finger in water to smudge the pencil lines into clouds of bellowing steam. 
It was a delight to watch a true master at work and a real gentleman who quite clearly loves what he is doing; "I draw each and every day" - long may he continue!

To see more of Quentin's work go to his website; and choose the "Fossicking" link where you can look through some of his archived illustrations.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

War Horse - Casting in New York

A fantastic opportunity for any puppeteers I thought I should pass this on, good luck to anyone who goes for it! (we managed to see it in April and it is just terrific)

*Lincoln Center Theater is SEEKING PUPPETEERS for its upcoming production of WAR HORSE*, which it will produce at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York with The National Theatre of Great Britain, whose critically acclaimed production has been running in London to great success.

The puppets and puppetry in War Horse are created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. The puppets, which are hand made from wood, cane and aluminum, require strong, versatile performers with an open mind. Handspring's mechanisms have been developed over 25 years of puppet design, drawing on traditional African, Japanese and German mechanisms, and puppeteers will* not* be expected to have specific experience with these puppets. The puppets are substantial and are operated by three performers thinking, breathing and improvising together; the aesthetic of the puppet performance is one of understatement and observation of genuine animal behaviour. The puppeteers will need to be good actors and versatile stage performers with experience of working in an ensemble and with adult audiences. They will have to be dedicated puppeteers with an emphasis on subtlety and fine detail. A high level of physical fitness, endurance and strength is essential for these roles.

Please send picture and resume and/or bio. In addition to your professional experience, please make sure to list/describe all training. Also, please note your height, note if you speak any French or German (this is* not* a requirement, but useful information) and if you have any proficiency with specific musical instruments (again,* not* a requirement).

Information should be sent to:

*War Horse Casting*
*Lincoln Center Theater*
*150 W. 65th Street*
*New York, NY 10023*

Or emailed to:

War Horse is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, Adapted by Nick Stafford Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris

Performers are employed under an Actors Equity Association LORT A+ contract.

Rehearsals: 1/20/2011 (approx)
Previews: 3/17/2011
Opens: 4/14/2011

Google Pac Man Doodle causes a stir

Seems like a cool tribute, and a bit of harmless fun, has given Google some negative publicity from statisticians with nothing better to do then calculate worthless estimations. They have theorised that Google's tribute to 30 years of Pac Man has caused the world $120 million in lost productivity, as workers play rather than work.

Even if this was the case, the novelty will soon wear off, but think how much additional productivity Google  create every day by shortening times to find customer details, acquire specific data, locate a map etc etc and not least of all employ illustrators to create some of the coolest logo illustrations seen in many years - all of which can be seen on this great site;

And if you haven't played Google Pac Man yet click here ....just try not to do it at work!

Sunday 16 May 2010

Jim Henson - 20 years ago today

20 years ago today (May 16th) Jim Henson died. His death at the age of 53 shocked the world, a realisation that we had lost one of the great creators the world had ever seen. Not only had he done so much for puppetry, television and film but everyone wondered just how much he had left to give. Given today's technology and the developments towards 3D that Jim had already developed (think of Waldo in the Muppets 3D movie at Disney World filmed 21 years ago) we can barley imagine what we would have seen from him with so much available to his imagination.

I met Jim in 1986, when I was 7, I interviewed him and Kermit on Breakfast TV here in the UK. He was a tremendously generous man, not just in the gifts he gave but more importantly in his time that he would give up to you. We spoke several times since meeting and the last letter I received from him was just a couple of months before he died. He wrote to me telling me not worry about the deal with Disney (which was happening at the time) and that it would be good for The Muppet's - listing the various projects that were on the go and planned for the future. I had written concerned about the deal and that the Muppet's would disappear amongst the huge Disney base of characters. Although the deal did end quite abruptly after Jim Henson's death in 1990, Disney did eventually acquire the Muppet's a few years ago.

My own interest in puppetry, animation and illustration is all down to the influences Jim Henson and the Muppet's made upon me when I was young. The meeting and correspondence with him in the late 1980's gave me a link to a genius which I feel completely blessed to have had. Thank you Jim.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

The National Puppetry Archive

Puppetry in Great Britain has a rich and diverse history. From the Victorian marionette showmen with their elaborate travelling theatres and trick marionettes to the Punch and Judy professors in their booths on the sea front, each have played their own part in not just our puppet history, but our social history as well.

Items relating to puppets and puppet theatre are varied and reside in public and private collections throughout the UK and abroad. It is the aim of the National Puppetry Archive to bring these collections together, not physically, but virtually; linking our own digitised collection with other museum databases around the country. We also actively encourage those with private collections to share their items and the history behind them within our site.
The National Puppetry Archive and its collection is administered by The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild, the oldest puppetry organisation in the world and co-curated by myself, Michael Dixon, and Ray DaSilva. The Guild’s own collection is currently being digitised and added to the database, forming the basis of the online archive.

I have been able to create a base for the archive that allows us to not only store the collections of both the Guild and the Puppet Centre but also offer a research centre with a library, archive, video collection and a selection of puppets on display.

We are now beginning the long and slow process of organising and arranging the items into relevant accessible files. The hope is to also begin scanning each item that can be catalogued and uploaded to the archives site;

Monday 3 May 2010

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Just got back from seeing Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland. It really is a feast for the eyes, obviously Burton is known for his dark and twisted imagination and that fabulous vision he has for transforming different worlds, but I was a bit unsure of this one and how it would be. 
It's such a well known story and has had so many incarnations that it would need to be very good to beat both Jim Henson's 'Dreamchild' and Jan Svankmajers 'Alice'. Despite the glorious design and costumes and the brilliant choice of actors and voices, I don't think it did quite beat either of those two. I agree with some of the reviews, it did feel at times a little soulless, a Johnny Depp band wagon, and in places the film became a slave to CGI (The Queen of Hearts soldiers should have been playing cards not Star Wars, Clone Wars soldiers!) but all that said seeing it in 3D just wowed me. 

This is the first time I have seen the newer version of 3D (aside from the glasses with two different colours, or the odd short film at Disney World) I have to admit the 3D effect was amazing and, although I was sceptical at first, if this is the way TV and film are going then let it happen, and happen quickly! There were times that the 3D effect drew you in so much that you did actually feel like you were standing there in the set. I loved that, it is a new dimension to going to the cinema. A reinvention which in this culture of 'staying home' is something that cinema's need badly.

Overall a good film and a worthy addition to the Alice adaptations with a few twists along the way. And if you can still see it in 3D -!

Sunday 2 May 2010

The Lanchester Marionettes at the Little Angel

On Saturday 17th April I gave an illustrated talk and performance (along with Chris Somerville of the Harlequin Puppet Theatre) at The Little Angel Theatre on The Lanchester Marionettes. The show was complete sell out and was really well received. 
We performed both the Lanchester's Underwater Ballet and the Grand Circus. After the talk and performances the audience were invited to come on to the stage and get a closer look at the Puppets.
For more photos of the Lanchester puppets see The National Puppetry Archive